This upcoming Wednesday will be the 20th of Tevet, the day of the passing of one of the most celebrated figures in Jewish history: Rabbi Moses Maimonides, also known by his initials, the Rambam. A first-class leader, genius in Torah knowledge, an exemplary physician and philosopher deeply versed in all the wisdom of his time.
As we review the life of Maimonides, there are striking parallels to another giant in Jewish history, of whose passing we read in this week's Torah portion, Vayechi: Joseph the righteous.
Maimonides lived through a difficult childhood. His mother passed away shortly after his birth. His family was forced to flee his birthplace of Cordoba, Spain, and wandered from coast to coastm from Morocco to Israel to Egypt, seeking refuge from the wrath of fundamentalist Muslims.
Joseph led a similarly tumultuous life. His mother, Rachel, died when he was seven years old, and he was raised by his step-mother, Bilha. Wandering was likewise his lot in life. His family moved from Charan to the land of Canaan. Then Joseph's brother's sold him as a slave, and he was traded hands, from the Ishmaelite to the Midianites until finally he was brought to Egypt.
Given the turmoil in the history of both Joseph and Maimonides, one might think that such an upbringing would produce a very unsettled individual. Yet both Joseph and Maimonides were successful in contending with their challenges and developed into outstanding personalities.
Maimonides achieved the pinnacle of his accomplishments in Egypt, when he completed his monumental Mishneh Torah--a compendium of all aspects of halachah, Jewish law--including those that will be applicable only in the Messianic era. There he also achieved his fame as the royal physician. Like Joseph, Maimonides ascended to a rank second to the throne. Yet never did he forsake his faith, despite his service to a Muslim king.
This week's Torah portion describes the concern that Joseph had for his extended family, which made up the entirety of the Jewish people of the time. Maimonides, too, was a revered Jewish leader who was dedicated to the needs of the Jewish people. His concern is touchingly expressed in a number of letters of support and encouragement that he sent to Jews in various lands, suffering under the gentile decrees. Among the most well-known are his Igeret Hashmad, which he sent as encouragement to Jews suffering under the scourge of the Al-Mohades, the same fanatical Muslims who forced the family of Maimonides out of Spain. He also wrote Igeret Teiman, to encourage the Jews of Yemen who had fallen prey to a false Messiah, and Igeret Techiat Hameisim, an epistle fortifying Jewish belief in the ultimate resurrection of the dead.
From Joseph and Maimonides, we draw strength to contend with our own challenges in the final moments of exile. Speedily we will be redeemed and the dead will be resurrected, and we will merit to learn from these great figures once again.
Before their passing, both Joseph and Maimonides requested that their bodies be brought to Israel for burial. Our sages explain that Joseph believed in the resurrection of the dead, and knew that those who are buried in Israel will be resurrected first. Maimonides shared the same essential faith in the coming of Moshiach. He was one of the very few decisors of Jewish law who wrote about the era of Moshiach with the same realism as topics related to exile.